Christianity came to India in a.d. 52. Twenty years after the crucifixion of Christ, one of his apostles, St. Thomas, is said to have landed on the Malabar Coast, established a few churches and converted a number of local inhabitants in Kerala.
This was the first Christian settlement in the subcontinent – the Syrian Church. Today the ‘Syrian Christians’ (as they are known, owing to their spiritual practices and adoption of the Syrian liturgy) form the oldest Christian community in India.
The Syrian Orthodox Church functions as an autonomous body under its Indian prelate but remains loyal to the spiritual preeminence of the Patriarch of Antioch (the ancient capital of Syria).
¤ Advent of Christianity In India
The 15th century was marked by the advent of the Europeans and the beginning of a slow but sustained missionary activity that gained momentum in the 16th century.
The first church in North India was established in Lahore (now in Pakistan), under the rule of Akbar (1556-1605) the greatest Mughal emperor, known for formulating the Din-i-Illahi (‘Universal Religion’, formulated by combining the salient features of various religions).
Today, India is home to 23 million Christians, 50% of whom live in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Christians constitute 2.3% of India’s total population and form the third most prominent religion in India after Hinduism and Islam.
Christians form a majority of the total population in the eastern states of Mizoram and Nagaland, a third of the population of Goa and a quarter of the population of the coastal state of Kerala. But the influence of Christianity can be seen and felt through the length and breadth of the country.
¤ Biggest Festival of Christians
Christmas is the biggest Christian festival and one of the national festivals of India. It celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ on the 25th December every year.
¤ Merriment Celebrations
The towns and villages dress up for the yuletide spirit. Shops get ready to do brisk business and offer mega discounts and sales. Markets are packed with huge crowds. People buy new clothes, gifts (exchanging gifts is an age-old Christmas practice and people choose gifts for their loved ones with great thought and affection), a variety of things to cook, Christmas decorations, amongst other things.
Folks send Christmas greetings to their friends and families in faraway places. People decorate their homes to the hilt with Christmas trees (or the various substitutes available in the markets), wreathes with bright red decorative baubles, festoons, bells and other small trinkets.
In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, people hang beautiful star-shaped paper lamps of various colours and sizes outside their homes. The star lamps of Kerala are however more elaborate with some patterns or cutwork designs on them.
Nearly a week before Christmas, the church, club and school choirs start doing the rounds of their neighbourhood and are greeted by people with cakes and other eatables. Christmas carols are sung in various local languages all over the country.
¤ Special Prayers
Churches hold a special Midnight Mass, attended by most people of the community. People especially look forward to this Mass, as this is not only a sacred prayer ceremony but an important social event as well. Men and women wear new clothes and come for the Mass looking and smelling their absolute best. The Mass goes on for over a couple of hours and people fondly remember the Saviour who gave up his life so that they may live. The ceremonies held in Calcutta, Kottayam (this town in Kerala has the headquarters of the Syrian Church and also a sizeable Roman Catholic population), Delhi, Sardhana (U.P), Martandam (Tamil Nadu), Aizawl (Mizoram), Kohima (Nagaland), Shillong (Meghalaya), Panaji (Goa) and Pondicherry are worth a special mention.
¤ The Festive Celebration
After the mass, people head off home on this hallowed night, and children gambol on their way back, burning sparklers and bursting loads of crackers. Everyone sleeps with a peaceful easy feeling, as the next morning brings with it, the Big Day! On Christmas Day, people get ready for the biggest feast. Relatives and friends visit and wish each other a ‘Happy Christmas’ or a ‘Merry Christmas’ and eat the ‘haute cuisine’ especially prepared for the occasion. Many towns hold special carnivals and circus shows on the 25th and the entire community gets together to have a jolly good time. Young people organise excursions, go out to watch films and shows and generally live it up. Thus, all to soon, Christmas comes to an end but each year, it leaves the people with more memories to cherish.